Decolonizing “Prehistory”: Deep Time and Topological Knowledge in the Americas

Schwerin, Speicher-Hotel, 21-23 June, 2018

Link to Conference Report

The history of the Americas in the centuries and millennia before the arrival of Columbus is a contested ground and will remain so as more and more Indigenous voices enter the scientific chorus and more and more evidence is discovered about the human presence in America before and after the last glacial period. This symposium seeks to shed light on the reasons for the intellectual and often emotional intensity which transforms the scientific research on the ‘prehistory’ of America into a veritable culture war. Why is it that the contestation of the Clovis First consensus sparks so much debate? How to explain the belligerence shown by the parties involved in determining the provenance and racial identity of human remains such as ‘Kennewick Man’? What are the cultural effects of new discoveries and insights about the American distant past, e.g. in the field of ancient DNA analysis? How does this new knowledge impact on the geographical perpective (local vs. global) on pre-Columbian history, making it more or less available for nationalist and imperialist narratives? Finally and perhaps most importantly, how can the various ‘scientific’ narratives of American deep history be brought into dialogue with indigenous, orally transmitted, knowledge archives of the past?

While speculations about the distant past are enjoying remarkable publicity inside and outside of academia, the amount of emotional energy invested in these debates still begs explanation. The impossibility to explain past events that, in spite of all our rational and technical possibilities, cannot be known, creates fascination but also vexes the intellect. Attempts to reconstruct the distant past serve not only the advancement of science but also resonate with desires of a much less scientific nature (see above quote). These politics of scientific practice may turn out to reveal a stronger interest in place than in time. The symposium will investigate such (colonial) politics of science more generally and of reconstructions of the distant American past in particular. It invites its participants to read older and more recent constructions of the American distant past in the context of ideological and political discourses about territorial ownership and stewardship, ecology, landgrabbing, cultural and intellectual property, and identity formation.